Page layout and single page encounters

I want to write an interesting encounter – an antithesis of “roll on this table for a random encounter”. My problem with those kinds of encounters is that they often have very little imagination to them, and by their nature the DM can’t prep for them to add more colour. I know they gap they’re trying to fill: sometimes players dawdle and if they hang around the forest or make too much noise in a dungeon, something should turn up to teach them a lesson and get them moving.

I don’t think that problem needs to be solved by having a table to roll on which says “3 bears, 2 liches.” Why can’t there just be half a dozen generic, but well thought out, encounters at the back of the adventure?

I’ve been working on writing one of those. Laying it out on an A5 page is tricky though.

I’ve got one page of text which the DM should read at their leisure, explaining the environment. And then the cast list for the combat. The idea is that this is all they need open for the encounter, and can doodle on the page as needed.

I’ve only managed to fit 4 of the bad guys on this, so it doesn’t really scale. As I’m writing this, it occures to me that I’ll actually have two pages of A5 content I can fill for the DM to see at once.

Here’s the aims:

  • Give the bad guys descriptions. If you’re playing theatre of the mind this is super important, but hard to think up something unique on the spot. I promise your players will refer to them by their descriptions rather than “the one I just hit” or “which one is closer again?”.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: fleshless mobs. The goblin has a locket around his neck and suddenly you’ve got the players thinking of his loved ones back home.
  • Give the bad guys tactics. Read their actions from top to bottom on their turn. Do the top most possible one, skipping if it sounds boring right now. This gives them a personality which the players can come to expect during the fight.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: The bad guy has a d4 dagger and a d6 shortsword. Why would you ever chose the dagger? Many creatures in the MM have redundant weapons, leaving them as one-trick ponies.
  • Initiative has already been rolled. It was random, trust me. Just pencil in the characters around.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: Why bother rolling for this at the table? It takes ages to do this, meanwhile your players are already yelling their initiative at you.
  • Fleeing should be at the front of the DM’s mind.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: Why does ever bad guy fight to the death? How often to bar fights end up with body bags? At some point, even in a war people give up. The bad guys here must have a limit of some kind. The flee condition turns the end of the battle from a slog to a race, before they get away.
  • Loot is relevant, more interesting than just money, and already written down.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: “Can I loot the corpses?” “Uh, sure. They’re got shitty clothes and weapons that aren’t worth taking… They’ve got six gold though, I guess.”

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